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Star Trek – Tomorrow is Yesterday (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

It’s interesting how easily you can trace a line back from the original Star Trek films to the television show which inspired them. Each of the first four films has a very clear predecessor, an episode broadcast during the show’s run which seems to serve as something of a thematic forerunner. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is so similar to The Changeling that Star Trek: The Original Series 365 dubs it “Where Nomad Has Gone Before.” The Wrath of Khan is obviously rooted in Space Seed. Kirk’s decision to hijack the Enterprise and go against regulations to save his first officer in The Search for Spock feels like a full circle from Spock’s efforts to help Pike in The Menagerie.

And Tomorrow is Yesterday feels like a bit of a dry run for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. The crew might not have to save any whales, but it’s a comedic time-travel adventure that finds the Enterprise crew visiting the twentieth century and trying to avoid altering the time-line too much. Tomorrow is Yesterday feels a little simplistic when compared to some of the franchise’s later interactions with time-travel, but it is a fun and entertaining little episode. It’s easy to see why The Voyage Home might be tempted to revisit the set-up.

Flying the friendly skies...

Flying the friendly skies…

It goes without saying that Tomorrow is Yesterday is a little disjointed. It opens with a rather wonderful shot, of the Enterprise being spotted above twentieth century Earth. It’s such a great image that Star Trek: Voyager would borrow it for the climax of its own twentieth-century time-travel adventure in Future’s End, Part I. The problem is that the shot requires the Enterprise to already be in orbit of twentieth-century Earth in order to work. That means there’s no introduction or explanation of how the ship got there. Watching the episode, it seems like they were just travelling through space and then… boom! twentieth-century Earth!

Kirk’s log provides the obligatory exposition explaining how this came about, but even it seems fairly broad. “We were en-route to Starbase 9 for resupply when a black star of high gravitational attraction began to drag us toward it,” he explains. “It required all warp power in reverse to pull us away from the star. But, like snapping a rubber band, the breakaway sent us plunging through space, out of control, to stop here, wherever we are.” The ship might as well have bumped into a magical space pixie.

Spock can be a real pain in the neck...

Spock can be a real pain in the neck…

There is a reason for this, of course. Tomorrow is Yesterday had originally been planned to follow The Naked Time, serving as what would have effectively been the show’s first two-parter, or at least the franchise’s first adventure in serialisation. For whatever the reason, the two episodes were split up. So The Naked Time ended up with a rather weird time-travel ending that seems like a bit of an awkward fit, even for an episode about the end of the world, and Tomorrow is Yesterday was left without an opening.

Even factoring that in, it’s hard to argue that Tomorrow is Yesterday makes sense. Star Trek has some pretty flexible rules of time-travel, but none of them really account for whatever the hell happens at the end. Somehow Christopher’s memories are wiped by the fact the Enterprise is travelling back in time, but the rest of the crew is fine? How come Kirk and Spock can remember the mission, but he and the dude in the transporter room can’t? It’s pretty convenient and highly illogical.

Reviewing the tape...

Reviewing the tape…

So we’ve pretty much accepted that Tomorrow is Yesterday makes no sense, right? That doesn’t matter, though, because it’s great fun. One of the wonderful things about Star Trek was the show’s ability to be a great deal of fun even while it refused to make sense, something that none of the spin-offs could convincingly manage. If an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation made no sense, the odds were that it was going to be awful to sit through. Instead, the original Star Trek could make no sense at all while still being wonderfully entertaining.

Look at that fight scene on the military base, for example. You can Shatner loving every moment, including literally throwing himself at the guards at one point and that rather contrived piece of choreography where he leaps over another officer using a handy door frame. Tomorrow is Yesterday might be the first episode to really deal with the implications of time-travel, but it also explicitly plays them as comedy. Although there is an obvious inherent risk to the time-line, most of the joy of the episode is watching the Enterprise crew try to deal with the problems in their own way. For Kirk, that includes wonderfully staged fight sequences.

"You're never going to believe this..."

“You’re never going to believe this…”

Tomorrow is Yesterday demonstrates the flexibility of Star Trek as a storytelling format. Court Martial proved that you could use the show to tell legal stories, paving the way for countless court-themed episodes in the year ahead. Tomorrow is Yesterday isn’t only the first time-travel episode, but it’s really the first time that the show demonstrated that it could stretch to do comedy. It would be hard to describe stories like Shore Leave as serious drama, but it did feature the staged death of one of the cast.

Tomorrow is Yesterday only makes the faintest acknowledgement of the stakes, with the damage to the time-line remaining mostly abstract. In the next time-travel episode, the superb City on the Edge of Forever, the show would make the threat of damage to the fabric of time seem especially real by wiping the Enterprise out of existence. Here, Spock simply offers some common sense advice that proceeds to give the crew an excuse to interact with twentieth-century Earth. It is decidedly light.

Into the sunset...

Into the sunset…

After all, Tomorrow is Yesterday doesn’t seem to portray our leads in an especially heroic light, with their trip to the past acting more as a comedy of errors than a very serious mission. “This is very difficult to explain,” Kirk explains to Christopher. “We’re from your future. A time warp placed us here. It was an accident.” His guest wryly notes, “You seem to have a lot of them.” It’s not an unfair comment.

Kirk and Spock are shown to behave particularly rudely towards their twentieth-century house guest. After beaming the pilot on board, Kirk is quick to welcome him to the ship. When Christopher begins to freak out about the fact that he was snatched out of his aircraft into some science-fiction device, Kirk is less than patient. “We’ll tell you what we decide to tell you in a few moments,” he bluntly informs Christopher.

Pilot error...

Pilot error…

Spock is similarly to the point when considering the potential impact that Christopher’s stay on the Enterprise might have on the time-line. “I have run a computer check on all historical tapes. They show no record of any relevant contribution by John Christopher.” Then again, Spock is particularly pithy here. Reviewing the footage recorded of the Enterprise, he seems almost disappointed. “Poor photography,” he observes.

Unfortunately, the episode also reminds us that it is a product of the sixties, so at least one of the recurring gags has to include the requisite amount of gratuitous sexism. The computer in Kirk’s quarters calls him “dear”, and there’s a whole extended routine about how Kirk has finally inadvertently fulfilled his lifelong ambition of convincing the Enterprise to love him as much as he clearly loves it. Apparently this happened because the Starfleet outsourced upgrade of the Enterprise to a planet dominated by women. Even software programmed by women is unable to resist Kirk’s masculine charms.

Not at all thrown by the experience...

Not at all thrown by the experience…

“Cygnet XIV is a planet dominated by women,” Spock informs Christopher. “They seemed to feel the ship’s computer system lacked a personality. They gave it one. Female, of course.” Ah well, I suppose I should probably be happy the episode didn’t fall back on the whole sexist “women know nothing about technology” cliché. That said, the subplot involving the Enterprise computer is quite terrifying, if only because the thing seems almost sentient. It brings a whole new meaning to “slave drive.” The implications are unnerving, on top of the unfunny recurring gag.

Still, it’s the exception rather than the rule. Most of the rest of Tomorrow is Yesterday is actually quite charming and rather inoffensive. This isn’t the most complex time-travel plot that we’d ever see in Star Trek, and it actually seems like the episode has a bit of difficulty with some of the logical implications of the relatively simplistic mechanics it does employ. However, that’s not a bad thing. I suspect that the charm of Tomorrow is Yesterday is part of the reason that time-travel became such a staple of Star Trek, and one that was generally treated with a sense of fun and excitement.

Off the record...

Off the record…

There is one very interesting aspect, buried within Tomorrow is Yesterday, and it’s something that The Physics of Star Trek picked up on quite well:

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of time travel as far as Star Trek is concerned is that there is no stronger potential for violation of the Prime Directive. The crews of Starfleet are admonished not to interfere with the present normal historical development of any alien society they visit. Yet by travelling back in time it is possible to remove the present altogether. Indeed, it is possible to remove history altogether!

Indeed, you could argue that Tomorrow is Yesterday offers the first real glimpse of the Prime Directive in Star Trek.

They can let him off at the next transport of call...

They can let him off at the next transport of call…

The Prime Directive, the iron-clad law against any interference with a primitive society, would become one of the cornerstones of the Star Trek franchise. It would be a recurring plot point in The Next Generation and Voyager. It would even be one of the relatively few pieces of canon to get an “origin story” over the course of the first two years of Star Trek: Enterprise, at a time when that show was not slavishly devoted to continuity.

The rule wouldn’t be formally introduced until the next episode, Return of the Archons. Indeed, you could make a convincing argument that the Enterprise’s actions in Miri would have been a violation of that rule. Of course, there’s an excuse. Miri aired early in the season, before the franchise had quite codified these rules and regulations. However, Tomorrow is Yesterday seems to recognise the need for a code of non-interference, as the Enterprise tries to minimise its impact on a primitive culture.



Tomorrow is Yesterday is obviously a little different from other case where the Enterprise would try to avoid influencing a primitive culture. For one thing, this is their culture. Meddling in the past could have dire consequences, and possible cause the Enterprise or its crew to cease to exist. So there’s very clearly a selfish motivation for trying to avoid any direct interference with twentieth-century Earth.

Spock explains why the Enterprise must try to conceal its presence from the planet below. “He already knows too much about us and is learning more,” he warns Kirk of Christopher. “I do not specifically refer to Captain Christopher, but suppose an unscrupulous man were to gain certain knowledge of man’s future? Such a man could manipulate key industries, stocks, and even nations. and in so doing, change what must be. And if it is changed, Captain, you and I and all that we know might not even exist.” This is an idea that Voyager would explore (quite well) with Future’s End.

He's only slightly phased by it all...

He’s only slightly phased by it all…

In contrast, the Prime Directive exists primarily to prevent damage to the culture in question, the idea that interfering with a primitive society at an early stage of its development might cause turmoil and difficulty to a young civilisation. It’s a firm expression of the cultural relativism that Roddenberry would seed throughout Star Trek, the notion that one set of cultural values were not inherently superior and could not justifiably be imposed on a weaker culture.

Although it should be noted that Roddenberry himself would have difficulty with this position in his later years, with episodes like The Last Outpost or Lonely Among Us ready and willing to condemn alien societies for failing to live up to human standards. However, expressing the philosophy this early in Star Trek does a lot to define the show’s moral outlook, and to develop and expand the series beyond the simplistic “space western” classification that Roddenberry had used to court the network.

It's off the radar...

It’s off the radar…

And it’s telling that the philosophy is expressed this early, even in a form that is clearly motivated by the self-interest of the protagonists. Continuity is still somewhat flexible at this point in the game. Spock is referred to as a “lieutenant commander” here. There’s no reference to Starfleet, with the Enterprise apparently serving as part of the “United Earth Space Probe Agency.” Despite the effort of scripts like Arena to define the show’s continuity, it seems we still don’t have everything quite cemented. So outlining the philosophy that would evolve into the Prime Directive feels like a major step.

Perhaps we’re reading too much into what is, ultimately, a fun episode. Tomorrow is Yesterday is a solidly entertaining piece of Star Trek that doesn’t necessarily hold up to too much logical scrutiny. It’s probably safe to call it the show’s first comedy hour, and it’s executed with remarkable skill by all involved. It’s easy to see why Tomorrow is Yesterday remained so influential.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:


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